British waste sent to Turkey ‘dumped and burned’

British plastic waste exported to Turkey is polluting the Mediterranean Sea, according to an investigation by Greenpeace, which has called for the Environment Bill to ban the trade.

In March, the organisation uncovered new evidence of what is happening to plastic waste sent to Turkey, which has become the UK’s number one destination for it. At ten sites near Adana, in the south east of the country, they found piles of it dumped illegally in fields, near rivers, on train tracks and by the roadside. Some was on fire or had already been burned.

It was obvious that it derived from the UK: among the waste were Tesco and Lidl single-use plastic bags, Marks & Spencer bacon wrapper, Asda cashew nut packet and a Quavers crisp packet. Lucozade and Fanta bottles, alongside a UK car number plate, were also found dumped.

“The region has been particularly blighted by plastic,” said Greenpeace in a report published today, noting that the region is a centre for waste plastic imports. As a result, the river Seyhan that runs through the province is responsible for around 9% of the plastic pollution that enters the Mediterranean, second only to the Nile, it says.

At least some of the waste had been dumped within the past year or so, going by the presence of a coronavirus test and a Polish cereal packet with a use-by date of August 2021.

This is despite the Turkish government imposing a ban on the importation of waste plastic in January, which prompted fears that waste would be stockpiled here. Turkey receives about 38% of the UK’s arisings.

However, UK exporters have been circumventing the ban through reclassification, describing it not as coming from mechanical treatment of wastes, EWC 19 12 04, but as plastic packaging waste, EWV 15 01 02. As a result, the ban has had “no obvious effect on the UK’s waste industry”, says the report: exports increased by 42% in the first quarter of 2021 compared to the previous quarter, according to Environment Agency (EA) data.

The regulator is aware of the suspicious activity and has mounted inspections at ports.

But the data “is yet another reminder that the UK’s strategy of exporting its plastic waste depends on other countries remaining willing to carry the environmental and societal costs of plastic pollution,” said Greenpeace. The Turkish ban follows others imposed by China, Thailand, India, Malaysia and others.

READ MORE: Plastic waste exports: Someone else’s problem?

While recyclate continues to flow out of the country, the report underlines that the UK’s 16 domestic plastic waste processors are operating far below capacity. They can handle at least 440,000 tonnes per year but have an output just over half of that, it says – and more capacity is coming online.

The NGO makes several recommendations to respond to the problems it has identified. The first of these is for an “immediate ban” on exporting waste to non-OECD member countries and mixed plastic waste to OECD countries (which includes Turkey) under the Environment Bill. A complete ban on all exports of plastic waste should be in place by 2025, it says.

The bill should also set binding targets to halve consumption of single-use plastics by the same date, while introducing mandatory corporate reporting on plastic reduction. The goal is “entirely achievable” because only a small number of companies are responsible for the vast bulk of the UK’s consumer plastic packaging, says the report, with the top ten supermarkets alone generating 900,000t of it every year.

The report also says that the anticipated Extended Producer Responsibility scheme should promote the reuse and reduction of packaging, and the Deposit Return Scheme should be ‘all-in’ rather than limited to smaller items.

Finally, a moratorium on new incineration capacity should be introduced and the EA’s resources increased to ensure better monitoring and enforcement for the waste export sector, says Greenpeace.

The EA was asked to comment.

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